Although not exactly a rarity in worldwide folklore, the idea of a ‘horned serpent’ is especially rich in the Celtic mythology from which Matteo Brusa of Medhelan draws his inspiration. Perhaps this is pertaining to the god ‘Cernunnos’—certainly horned and often known in serpent form, and whose connotations transcend (although without necessarily predating) those which seek to associate the ground-hugging serpent with temptation and deception, among other so-called ‘sins’. Not so with Cernunnos, who often correlates with fertility, death, and the underworld. More interestingly, perhaps, is the god’s association with regeneration (itself also symbolic of figurative death) due to the shedding and renewal of skin, thus extending to further pagan associations with that greatest cycle of birth and death: the seasons.
Of course, the Celtic sun seen ‘dying’, or setting, on the cover of Medhelan’s debut seems suggestive of this link to our horned serpent, Cernunnos. The presumptive dialogue between illustrator Dan Capp‘s visual components and the sonic spectrum is just one element which makes this album of warm, fantasy synth such a complete, unified piece of work as opposed to a mere RPG-soundtrack. In addition to the evocative artwork, Brusa has collaborated with Chiara Rolla on a series of texts which weave a loose and openly interpretative narrative; each text can be utilized or considered with regards to their individual piece of music to inform your listening experience, or perhaps simply as personal imaginative fuel. I suspect Brusa would be content with either. There is nothing shocking in these texts; they sketch familiar yet functional mini-narratives which, if you have read any of the Icelandic sagas or Northern European folklore (including Beowulf), should be familiar as incidences in a more dramatic whole. While the overall story is intentionally vague, allusions can be found here and there. ‘A Dove among Serpents’ seems suggestive of Christianity’s arrival in Celtic lands, though the inevitable interplay between the aforementioned Judeo-Christian and Pagan snake symbolism is perhaps the primary food for thought for this track.
What of Medhelan’s music, though? Eschewing the cold, dead lo-fi synths which render a lot of this genre samey, instead the keyboards are luscious, warm, and teeming with detail and character. Featuring gorgeous production from Grimrik, whose bold Die Mauern der Nacht earlier this year was a key modern entry in the genre, Fall of the Horned Serpent‘s tracks are skillfully evocative without becoming over-simplified soundtrack. Take ‘The Chieftain’s Last Ride’, for instance, which manages to maintain its consistent tone and pace of mournful grandeur with full-blooded synth-horns and a powerfully repeating melody while using plucked strings for variety. It evokes warriors both exhausted and beaten by their exploits but also weighed down by the significance of their actions: ancestors and offspring are at stake here. The track, pregnant with drama, is just one of many which successfully and effortlessly calls forth flickering campfires, blood-smeared scowls, and the blood-ties of kinship through the combination of text, title, and music—feats repeated on ‘Hail the High King’ and ‘Wisdom and Fear’.
The instruments, electronic throughout, are nonetheless varied and faithful in creating atmosphere and emotion in a style which can be accused of ‘hamming it up’. To continue on Medhelan’s style, I feel an appropriate tag would be ‘fantasy folk synth’, if such issues matter at all, but with particular emphasis on the folk aspect; with such vivid and thrumming instrumentation (again, I feel some credit should also go to Grimrik here) delivering these plaintive and sombre melodies, one easily (if occasionally) forgets this is pure electronic music in a way that most dungeon synth or dark ambient doesn’t concern itself with. There’s no attempt to cover the fact, however; unabashed ‘synth’ is a feature, but the consideration given to keeping the whole album fluid and real creates a very flesh-and-blood effect.
It is, perhaps, difficult to imagine where Medhelan could go after their explorations here on Fall of the Horned Serpent. It’s not that the debut is perfect; rather, such a complete and rounded statement is suggestive of an integrity of style which could yield either more-of-the-same quality or break-from-the-past excursions. I’m not sure which I’d prefer most. Either way, I’ll certainly be listening.
To sum up, Medhelan’s debut is a finely filigreed piece of earthy synth music that is memorable, evocative, and steeped respectfully in culture.
01) Hail the High King
02) Land of the Ancestors
03) A Dove Among Serpents
04) Wisdom and Fear
05) The Pyre of Gods
06) Summon the Clans
07) The Chieftan’s Last Ride
08) A Song for the Exiled
09) Fall of the Horned Serpent (Seamless Mix – Digital Only)